WASHINGTON — Can the 2.2 million parents seeking child support in California sue state and county agencies for failing to collect the money they are owed?
That question has been before the Supreme Court this week and the answer may come as early as Monday.
If the justices reject a pending appeal in an Arizona case, the way will be clear for class-action suits in Los Angeles County and throughout the West on behalf of custodial parents who are frustrated with what they say are lax and incompetent collection efforts.
"There absolutely will be a suit," said Jane Preece, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. "They [county officials] have been getting a lot of money from the federal government to run this [collection] program, and they have failed over a long time now."
A recent report concluded that California's child-support collection program was "among the poorest in the United States and getting worse." Los Angeles County ranked next to last among the state's 58 counties in the rate at which it collects money owed by noncustodial parents.
Last year, a custodial parent in Los Angeles County received an average of only $253 per year through the federally subsidized collection program. Some advocates say that state tax collectors could do a better job.
A lawsuit "may be the only way to force changes and improve the system. This is a California-wide problem," said Leora Gershenzon, an attorney for the National Center for Youth Law in San Francisco.
State officials, as well as children's rights advocates, have been closely following the Arizona case.
In 1975, Congress passed the Child Support Enforcement Act to help welfare mothers collect support payments from "deadbeat dads." Since then, the program has been broadened to serve all custodial parents who cannot afford a private lawyer.
Federal funds pay at least two-thirds of the cost for agencies to locate missing parents, obtain support orders and collect child support. In California, the state has turned over the task to the county district attorney's offices.
In recent years, child welfare advocates have criticized state efforts. Last year, the Census Bureau concluded that $6 billion went uncollected annually in the U.S.
Three years ago, lawyers representing 300,000 custodial parents in Arizona sued the state for failing "to collect hundreds of millions of dollars in delinquent child support payments."
The state countered that the law did not give parents a right to sue. They said that the federal Department of Health and Human Services was solely responsible for enforcing the law.
But in December, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed on a 2-1 vote. Judge Stephen Reinhardt of Los Angeles said that parents who sued documented "a range of administrative abuses extending from simple incompetence and bureaucratic bungling to shockingly callous indifference." One mother, despite having repeatedly supplied state officials with her ex-husband's address and work site, had failed to obtain a single monthly payment over seven years.
California state officials, along with those from 35 other states, have joined Arizona's appeal.
"There's been a concerted effort on our part to bring this issue to the attention of the [high] court," said Wayne Doss, director of the Bureau of Family Support for the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office. "This case has very large ramifications for us.
"The truth is there are far more people seeking services than would allow us to treat them as individual cases," Doss said. "We're concerned that if individuals can sue because they are not satisfied with how their case has been handled, it will quickly become an unmanageable program."
Doss said that collecting unpaid child support is difficult because parents move and try to evade their obligations.
"It is never easy to collect money from someone who is determined not to pay," he said. "There is no question a lot of child support goes unpaid but every month we collect 33% of the money that is owed."
The case (Blessing vs. Freestone, 95-1441) is likely to prove difficult for the high court, too.
The justices have split repeatedly over the question of whether federal funding laws give individuals a right to sue.
In general, more liberal justices have supported lawsuits against government agencies, while more conservative justices, led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, have moved to block such suits.
Arizona officials geared their appeal to the court's conservative majority.
If the 9th Circuit decision stands, it will "open a floodgate of litigation against state and local officials," they said, because it "authorizes over 3 million custodial parents residing [in nine Western states] to sue state officials."